Katie Ledecky didn’t feel like herself. She didn’t look it, either, as another swimmer chased her down.
Ledecky lost an individual final at a major international meet for the first time in 14 tries, taking silver in the 200m freestyle at the world championships in Budapest on Wednesday.
Italian world-record holder Federica Pellegrini won in 1:54.73, which was .04 slower than Ledecky’s semifinal time Tuesday.
Ledecky and Australian Emma McKeon tied for silver in 1:55.18.
Ledecky had won all 13 of her individual finals at the Olympics, world championships and Pan Pacific Championships before Wednesday.
“I just didn’t feel really like myself in the middle of that race,” Ledecky said on NBCSN after going slower in an individual final than in early rounds for the first time at a major international meet. “It felt like I was scrambling a little bit at the end. That hurts a little but, but I’m going to come back stronger and be really good in that event the next couple of years.”
In other events, South African Chad le Clos went out hard and held on to win the 200m butterfly in 1:53.33. That time would have beaten rival Michael Phelps by .03 in Rio. It was Le Clos’ fastest since upsetting Phelps at the 2012 Olympics.
The U.S. mixed medley relay team lowered the world record in the preliminary heats and the final Wednesday, beating Australia by 2.65 seconds.
China’s Sun Yang failed in a bid for a fourth straight world title in the 800m free. He finished fifth, eight seconds behind Italian winner Gabriele Detti.
Brit Adam Peaty repeated as world champion in the 50m breaststroke, a non-Olympic event, after lowering his world record in the prelims and semis.
But the women’s 200m free was the showcase event Wednesday.
McKeon led Ledecky by .01 after 150 meters, but the veteran Pellegrini surged past both swimmers with the fastest final length by seven tenths of a second. Ledecky told media in Budapest that she didn’t have “that extra gear” that she normally summons.
Ledecky’s quest to match Missy Franklin‘s female record of six gold medals at a single worlds is now over. She can still win five gold medals this week.
Ledecky has the 4x200m freestyle relay Thursday, where the U.S. is a heavy favorite, and the 800m freestyle on Friday and Saturday, where she holds the 13 fastest times in history.
Ledecky has been between one and two seconds slower than her times at the Rio Olympics in three events at worlds. This doesn’t count the 1500m free, which wasn’t swum in Rio. She can get away with that in distance races, but not in her shortest individual event, the 200m free.
Ledecky saw major changes since Rio, moving from the D.C. area, enrolling at Stanford and swimming under a new coach for the first time in four years. Then she swam a full NCAA season in the fall and winter.
“Maybe I haven’t been quite on point as much as I would’ve hoped to have been this week, but I’ve still been feeling good,” Ledecky said.
Pellegrini, whose 200m free world record from 2009 is the oldest female mark still standing, became the first swimmer to earn seven world medals in a single event. Pellegrini also earned Olympic silver in 2004 at age 16 and gold in 2008, but was fifth in 2012 and fourth in 2016.
She said after the race that it would be the final 200m of her career “at this level.”
“I honestly thought the one to win the race would be Katie,” Pellegrini said, according to The Associated Press, “and it wasn’t.”
Ledecky’s biggest rival in the 200m free, Swede Sarah Sjöström, chose not to enter the event in Budapest as she focuses on the 50m and 100m butterflies and freestyles.
Sjöström clocked 1:54.08 for silver in Rio (.35 behind Ledecky) and 1:54.31 leading off the 4x200m free relay at 2015 Worlds (.85 faster than Ledecky’s winning time in the 200m free final which Sjöström also skipped).
In Wednesday semifinals, Americans Caeleb Dressel and Nathan Adrian were the second- and third-fastest qualifiers into the 100m freestyle final Thursday. France’s Mehdy Metella qualified first by .01 over Dressel.
Chase Kalisz, the Olympic 400m individual medley silver medalist, qualified fastest into Thursday’s 200m IM final.
Olympic champion Mireia Belmonte of Spain and Hungarian Katinka Hosszu were among the qualifiers into Thursday’s 200m butterfly final.
Women’s 200m Freestyle Results
Gold: Federica Pellegrini (ITA) — 1;54.73
Silver: Katie Ledecky (USA) — 1:55.18
Silver: Emma McKeon (AUS) — 1:55.18
4. Veronika Popova (RUS) — 1:55.26
5. Siobhan Haughey (HKG) — 1:55.96
6. Leah Smith (USA) — 1:56.06
7. Katinka Hosszu (HUN) — 1:56.35
8. Charlotte Bonnet (FRA) — 1:56.62
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